Who are the Oulipo?

Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) was a book published in 1961, made up of 14 ordered groups of 10 line poems, the idea was that a reader picks one line from each of group to build a 14 line sonnet. Because of the way combinations work in mathematics the books essentially contained 10^14 possible poem variations. During the writing of the book, Raymond Queneau enlisted the help of mathematician François Le Lionnais and it was this collaboration which sparked the creation of the Oulipo in 1960 (Gallix, 2013). Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop of potential literature) or Oulipo is a group for people interested in, as Daniel Levin Becker a more recent member of the group put it, “investigations of poetic form and narrative constraint and the mathematics of wordplay” (Levin Becker, 2012). It is rare such disparate topics, poetry and mathematics, are seen in the same sentence and so I use this essay to explore a little further into the Oulipo and this relationship between creative writing and mathematics.

The Oulipo is made up of an eclectic assortment of individuals including writers, poets, translators, graph theorists, lexicographers, actors, historians, diplomats, etcetera (Levin Becker, 2012). One of the earliest definitions proposed, to describe the assorted members was, “rats who must build the labyrinth from which they propose to escape” (Motte, 1986, p.25). Becker describes this in more detail in his book “Many subtle channels”, “writers are constrained whether or not they acknowledge it-not just by the strictures of poetic forms like the sonnet or the haiku, but also by the conventions of their chosen genre, the format in which they publish, even the grammar and lexicon of their native (or adopted) language. Embracing a set of carefully chosen rules is meant to focus the mind so narrowly that those obscure pressures and preoccupations fade, revealing paths and passageways that one would never notice without the blinders.” (Levin Becker, 2012). This is an idea that I can see working in all forms of creative production, it is a way of avoiding getting so-called “writer’s block”, instead, switching the mind from arbitrary idea generation to problem-solving.

I find this idea deeply attractive; through learning software and programming paradigms, I have increasingly come to see humans as complex machines and creativity the operation of making connections between existing ideas. If this is the case it makes sense for us systematize the creative process in order to best take advantage of our brains abilities, which at least in my own case is problem-solving. Interestingly in 1960 around the same time the Oulipo formulated, a psychologist called Sarnoff Mednick first proposed this idea that, “creativity is associative memory that works exceptionally well” (Kahneman, 2015, p.67). I don’t want to generalise when I say it makes sense to “systematize the creative process” it is a subject which deserves far more research but it is a technique that works for this unique group of academics and creatives which has lasted now nearly 60 years.


Gallix, A. (2013). Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jul/12/oulipo-freeing-literature-tightening-rules [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].

Kahneman, D. (2015). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p.67.

Levin Becker, D. (2012). Many subtle channels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp.6,10.

Motte, W. (1986). Oulipo. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, p.25.

Motte, W. (2006). Raymond Queneau and the Early Oulipo. French Forum, [online] 31(1), pp.41-54. Available at: https://arts.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.arts.idm.oclc.org/docview/198771606?accountid=10342.

Oulipo.net. (2017). Oulipo | Oulipo. [online] Available at: http://oulipo.net/fr/oulipiens/o[Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].